Ed Miliband, with crown. Photo: Getty/New Statesman composite
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Election 2015 Style: Flower Power Ed uses his head

The most successful manifestations of style and fashion may be defined not by conformity, but by otherness, writes Harper's Bazaar editor Justine Picardie.

Such is the nature of print journalism that I am writing this before the election has taken place, although by the time some of you come to read these words, the voting will be over, even if no clear outcome has yet emerged. This seems strangely reminiscent, to me at least, of the constant state of uncertainty that defines the fashion world, however much it might pride itself on an ability to make predictions about people’s desires and demands.

Of course, some readers will feel that fashion has no place in any analysis of politics; to which I can only point in the direction of the ardent teenage Milifans, who have been busily rebranding the Labour leader by photoshopping decorative flower crowns on to his head. As it happens, these were remarkably similar to the floral headpieces worn by the models in the Chanel couture show in January this year: bright and light and optimistic, despite the general gloom in Paris at the time.

Source: Twitter

One of the sweet and funny things about the crowns is how absurd they looked on Miliband – a man who I suspect has never even glanced at pictures of a Chanel fashion show, let alone considered the semiotics of flower power. But what I also liked about the flowers, and their sudden sprouting on Ed’s head, was that their presence seemed to suggest that even in an age of professional spin-doctors, politics is as impossible to control as the ebb and flow of fashion.

The appealing irrationality of the floral garlands was, of course, entirely unexpected; for they arose out of nowhere, in the midst of an election campaign in which the three main political leaders – Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband – had hitherto worn identical-looking tailored dark suits, all of them accessorised with pale blue shirts and neatly knotted plain ties. Yet for all the inherent absurdity of Miliband being crowned with flowers, it has some ancient precedent. Consider the laurel wreaths of the classical world, the symbols of victory and triumph; or a grass crown, the noblest of military decorations in ancient Rome.

According to the Roman historian Suetonius, Julius Caesar liked to wear his laurel wreath on all occasions, in order to conceal his baldness, which he combined with a rather particular hairdo, still known today after the great dictator. George Clooney has been sporting a similar style to great effect on the set of his new film, Hail, Caesar!. So, too, has the Conservative Party’s very own pin-up, George Osborne, who unveiled his Caesar cut last year, along with a series of impeccably tailored suits that displayed his newly trim physique (apparently the result of strict adherence to the 5:2 diet). And even without a laurel wreath, Osborne’s hair has looked rather more luxuriant since he adopted Caesar’s tonsorial approach; although, as yet, I’ve been unable to find any Twitter fans who have adorned the Chancellor with flowers or a grass crown.

But just as Caesar’s laurel wreath did not save him from assassination, Miliband’s flower crown may not herald his ascent to power. However, his abundant hair could augur well, according to the belief that a bald man is unlikely to beat a hirsute one in an election. Thus William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard were unable to compete with Tony Blair’s hair.

Where this leaves the slightly balding, smooth-shaven David Cameron remains unclear. After all, he managed to defeat the undeniably hairier Gordon Brown in the last election; which might explain the MBE conferred upon the Prime Minister’s innovative hairdresser, Lino Carbosiero. (That said, Cameron’s coalition government did involve him joining forces with the more hirsute Nick Clegg). It might also explain why Nigel Farage recently speculated that Cameron had been using hair-dye, thereby implying that the Prime Minister was not only greying, but vain. Boris Johnson, in contrast, would want you to think that he doesn’t care about such piffling details, though his déshabillé appearance may be more contrived than he might let on; he has been observed on more than one occasion deliberately ruffling his blond locks before taking the stage to speak.

All of which reminds me that the most successful manifestations of style and fashion – and, quite possibly, politics – may be defined not by conformity, but by otherness. Hence most of the greatest designers have been mavericks or outsiders, such as Coco Chanel, who emerged from ­poverty, illegitimacy and obscurity to become an icon of female independence. “Fashion is not simply a matter of clothes,” she declared. “Fashion is in the air, borne upon the wind. One intuits it. It is in the sky and on the street.” Heaven only knows what Mademoiselle Chanel would make of the Milifans’ floral handiwork; but I for one salute them for their creative wit and loyal spirit, even if their beloved leader remains as yet uncrowned, except in their imagination.

Justine Picardie is the editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar

This article first appeared in the 06 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Struggle

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Jeremy Corbyn faces a dilemma as Brexit solidifies: which half of his voters should he disappoint?

He comes from a tradition on the left that sees the EU as a capitalist club.

Imagine a man who voted to leave the European Economic Community in 1975. A man who spoke out against the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, saying that it “takes away from national parliaments the power to set economic policy and hands it over to an unelected set of bankers”. A man who voted against the Lisbon Treaty in 2008.

You don’t have to imagine very hard, because that man is Jeremy Corbyn. When campaigning for the Labour leadership in 2015, he told a GMB hustings, “I would ­advocate a No vote if we are going to get an imposition of free-market policies across Europe.”

When Labour’s Brexiteers gathered to launch their campaign in 2016, several seemed hurt that Corbyn and his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, were not there with them. “It is surprising, when we voted against the advice of the chief whip on a number of European issues over the last decades, that Jeremy and John, who have always been in that lobby with us, that they would want to lead a campaign that isn’t even asking for a renegotiated position,” said the MP Graham Stringer.

I mention this because since the election campaign started in April, I keep having an odd experience – people insisting that Corbyn is not a Eurosceptic, and that he will use Labour’s new-found strength to argue for a softer Brexit. Others claim that Labour’s current position on freedom of movement (ending it) is the obvious, common-sense – even progressive – choice.

This matters. Look, if the evidence above doesn’t convince you that the Labour leader is intensely relaxed about exiting the European Union, I don’t know what else would. Yet it’s clear that some Labour activists strongly identify personally with Corbyn: they find it hard to believe that he holds different opinions from them.

The second factor is the remaking of Brexit as a culture war, where to say that someone is a Eurosceptic is seen as a kind of slur. Perhaps without realising it, some on the left do associate Euroscepticism with Little Englanderism or even flat-out racism, and see it as a moral failing rather than a political position.

But I’m not impugning Jeremy Corbyn’s character or morals by saying that he is an instinctive Brexiteer. He comes from a tradition on the left that sees the EU as a capitalist club. You can disagree with that premise but it’s a respectable line of reasoning.

Also, the Euroscepticism of Corbyn and his allies will undoubtedly give them an advantage in the months ahead; they are not consumed by fatalism, and the members of McDonnell’s shadow Treasury team feel that the removal of European state aid restrictions can help revive ailing bits of the British economy. They have a vision of what an ideal “Labour Brexit” would be – and it’s not just sobbing and begging Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel to take us back.

We do, however, need a reality check. Now that the necessary humble pie has been eaten, Labour’s unexpected revival at the ballot box means we can begin to treat Corbyn as a normal politician – with the emphasis on the second word. He’s not the Messiah, but he’s not a joke either. He is a charismatic campaigner who is willing to compromise on second-tier issues to achieve his main objectives.

From the general election, we can see just how good a campaigner Corbyn is: he can fire up a crowd, give disciplined answers to interviewers and chat amiably on a sofa. That throws into sharp relief just how limp his performances were last year.

He might have little else in common with Theresa May, but they both looked at the EU referendum and thought: yeah, I’m going to sit this one out. He called on activists to accept the EU “warts and all”; and said he was “seven, or seven and a half” out of ten in favour of staying in it.

For both leaders, this was a pragmatic decision. May did not want to be overtly disloyal to David Cameron, but neither did she wish to risk her career if the result went the other way.

Anyone in Labour would have been equally sane to look north of the border and back to 2014, and remember just how much credibility the party immolated by sharing stages with the Conservatives and allowing itself to be seen as the establishment. By limiting his involvement in the Remain campaign and whipping his MPs to trigger Article 50, Corbyn ended up with a fudge that gave Labour some cover in heavily pro-Brexit regions of the country.

That’s the politics, but what about the principle? I can’t shake the feeling that if Corbyn campaigned as hard for Remain in 2016 as he did for Labour in 2017, we would still be members of the European Union. And that matters to me, as much as left-wing policies or a change in the rhetoric around migrants and welfare claimants, because I think leaving the EU is going to make us poorer and meaner.

That’s why I worry that many of my friends, and the activists I talk to, are about to be disappointed, after waiting and waiting for Labour to start making the case for a softer Brexit and for the single market being more important than border controls. As Michael Chessum, a long-standing Momentum organiser, wrote on the New Statesman website, “Recognising the fact that immigration enriches society is all very well, but that narrative is inevitably undermined if you then choose to abolish the best policy for allowing immigration to happen.”

Labour’s success on 8 June was driven by its ambiguous stance on Brexit. To Leavers, it could wink at ending freedom of movement when they worried about immigration; to Remainers, it offered a critique of the immigrant-bashing rhetoric of recent times. But can that coalition hold as the true shape of Brexit solidifies? Over the next few months, Jeremy Corbyn’s biggest decision will be this: which half of my voters should I disappoint?

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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